Aug. 8, 2007 -- Beaches in the U.S. were considered unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year due to water pollution, according to a leading environmental group.
In its annual report on the health of the nation's beaches, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that high bacteria levels prompted closings or swimming advisories at more than 1,600 of the 3,500 monitored ocean and freshwater beaches in 2006.
The number of days beaches were closed or under advisories increased by 28% over 2005 levels, but NRDC water program director Nancy Stoner tells WebMD that not all the news is bad.
She says some of the increase was attributable to better monitoring of beach water quality by public health officials. And unusually heavy rainfalls in Hawaii led to big increases in beach closings and advisories in that state.
"If you take out Hawaii, which was hopefully an aberration, we still saw a 7% increase in beach closings and advisories, though," she says. "There are many things we could be doing to improve this."
Beach Buddies, Beach Bums
The NRDC has been issuing its report on beach water quality annually for 17 years. But for the first time in 2006 the group highlighted the beaches it considers at highest risk for water contamination because they are very popular, are located close to pollution sources, or both.
Ninety-two high-risk beaches in 19 states were found to exceed health standards for water quality more than 25% of the time.
Beaches labeled "beach buddies" in the report -- because they were among the nation's cleanest and best-monitored -- included:
- North Carolina's Kure and Kill Devil Hills beaches
- Wisconsin's Sister Bay and North beaches
- California's Laguna Beach
- Michigan's Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches
- Main's Libby Cove, Mother's, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands, and York Harbor beaches
These beaches were found to violate public health standards less than 10% of the time, compared with more than 51% of the time among beaches identified as the nation's most polluted.
Beaches with this dubious distinction, which earned them the title "beach bums," included:
- California's Avalon and Venice State beaches
- Maryland's Hacks and Bay Country beaches
- New Jersey's Beachwood Beach West
- Illinois' Jackson Park Beach
Storm Water Biggest Culprit
By far the biggest source of beach water contamination is runoff from storms, which was responsible for 40% of beach closings and swimming advisories in 2006. That's more than double the number just one year earlier, Stoner says. Sewage spills led to another 5% of closings.
Stoner says the most dangerous time to swim at the beach in terms of water quality is after a heavy rainfall because storm water runoff flows directly into waterways, taking ground contaminants like pet wastes, pesticides, and fertilizers with it.
"Basically anything that's on the streets washes into the waterways untreated when it rains," she says. "That's why this is such a huge problem."
Record rain levels in 2006 added to the strain on an already overloaded storm system infrastructure. And unchecked development in and around coastal areas has led to big declines in wetlands and dunes that could filter dangerous pollution, she adds.
EPA Cites Progress
The NRDC report contrasts a more optimistic assessment of the country's beach water quality issued by federal officials in May.
The Environmental Protection Agency's "2006 Swimming Season Update" noted that more of the nation's beaches than ever are being monitored for water quality and that beach closings in 2006 tended to be shorter than in 2005.
Benjamin Grumbles, who is the EPA's assistant administrator for water, tells WebMD that better monitoring is largely responsible for the increase in beach closings and advisories.
The passage of a coastal water's monitoring law by Congress in 2000 led to a tripling of monitored beaches with public advisory programs, he says.
"We are seeing progress in keeping America's beaches clean, but significant challenges remain," he says. "We don't believe [the 2006 figures] represent an actual increase in risk. What we are seeing is an increase in monitoring and public awareness."
Grumbles says reports like those from NRDC and the EPA have increased public awareness about beach water quality and have led to increased action at the federal, state, and local level.
The EPA recently reached an agreement with the city of San Diego, which will lead to a billion dollar sewer system upgrade designed to reduce sewage spills and overflows, and the agency is currently studying new technology that could reduce water contamination assessment times from several days to several hours.
Bacteria, Viruses, and Parasites
All agree that swimming in contaminated water can make you very sick.
Exposure to bacteria, viruses, and parasites in dirty beach water is a frequent cause of gastrointestinal illness; ear, nose and eye infections; hepatitis; encephalitis; skin rashes; and respiratory illness.
Experts estimate that as many as 7 million Americans are made ill every year by drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. occur during the summer.
Beachgoers can reduce their chances of getting sick by staying out of the water during swimming advisories and after heavy rainfalls, Stoner says.
"If you see pollution don't swim, and if there is trash on the beach that is another warning sign," she says. "But just because beach water looks clean that doesn't mean it is. You can't see all of the pollution that can make you sick."